There will soon be a new landmark in the vicinity of Skukuza, in the form of a huge ball – six and a half metres in diameter - balanced on top of a tall steel tower. But despite its impressive dimensions, the new landmark will only be barely visible from a select few sites.
Skukuza will soon be home to the South African Weather Services' latest remote weather sensing equipment in the form a new radar station, and a lot of work has gone into making the radar ball and its accompanying high-tech equipment as unobtrusive as possible.
After a comprehensive environmental impact assessment process (which included a search for paint suitable both for camouflaging a giant ball in the bush and for allowing free access to radar signals) the department of environmental affairs has given the goahead for the construction of the radar station.
The station will occupy an area of about 18 by 20 metres, but despite its small footprint a lot of effort went into finding a spot where the radar had the least visual impact. This was done by raising a blimp to the expected height of the radar's spherical radome at each of the five possible sites, and then driving around to see if it was visible from the tourist roads.
The blimp helped rule out many of the sites, until the final site was chosen between a powerline servitude and an old tar road near the old abattoir. As well as the dome, a specially built container will house the electronic equipment that decodes the radar signals and sends the information to the weather service. This will be carefully installed so that it causes least environmental impact.
If the station has to be decommissioned it will also leave little trace of its former existence. The radar station will link up with other stations across the country, and fill a gap in the weather service's network. It will also link up with a radar station at XaiXai in Mozambique. The Skukuza area was identified some time ago as a priority area to improve the South African Weather Service's radar coverage.
The radar stations operate on a line-of-sight basis, and existing stations at Ermelo and Polokwane can only detect the tops of large thunderstorms in the lowveld. The new radar station, which should be up-and-running by March next year, will provide better weather data (especially in terms of rainfall and thunderstorm activity) for agriculture, aviation, and especially for early warning systems for floods such as those that occurred in 2000.
As the radar can produce precise rainfall information in its area of coverage, it will also be of benefit to Kruger's scientific services. Kruger will receive from the weather service, free of charge, a Titan computer and real-time and archived weather data.
A standard thirty-day appeal period follows the department of environmental affairs giving permission to the project. Assuming that all goes well, the huge fibreglass ball will be cast, painted with radar-friendly paint of the chosen colour and shipped from overseas, likely from a specialist factory in Ireland. The ball will then be erected at the chosen location, and South Africa's meteorologists will start smiling when their additional weather data starts streaming in from the Kruger National Park.